It's the world's biggest structure made from living organisms. It's so large it joins that hallowed group of things which can be seen from space. Home to more than 1500 species of fish as well as six of the world's seven species of threatened marine turtles, it's arguably Australia's greatest natural attraction. Yet recently it's been in the news for all the wrong reasons. So what's muddying the waters of the Great Barrier Reef?
In 2010 the Australian government announced plans to expand Abbot Point, a key port on the North Queensland coast not only close to the vast coal reserves of the Galilee Basin (named as one of the world's five 'carbon bombs'), but also adjacent to the reef. The expansion, fiercely opposed by many environmental groups including WWF, requires extensive dredging, and will mean that by 2020 as many as 7500 ships could pass across the Great Barrier Reef each year.
In May this year, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) released a draft decision that confirmed significant threats to the Great Barrier Reef exist. Even official Australian government reports say that the overall health of the Great Barrier Reef is poor and deteriorating. Ocean acidification, coral bleaching, overfishing and pollution have all played their part.
The expansion plans are also controversial because protecting the reef has benefits beyond conservation.
It's an investment in the security of coastal communities and provides significant benefits to the Australian economy. Reef industries including fishing and tourism are worth as much as $US 5.8 billion a year, and support nearly 69,000 jobs.
John Tanzer, WWF International's head of marine, believes it's even simpler than that.
"In a place like the Great Barrier Reef with its large tourism industry, visitor numbers will always increase if the areas are protected - because there are more fish that are not only bigger, but also easier to see," he says.
Marine protection is a topic often discussed, but rarely implemented - less than two per cent of the global ocean is covered by any form of protection, and in New Zealand waters, fully protected marine reserves cover a paltry 0.4 per cent. Yet as our demands on our marine resources increase, the benefits become increasingly tangible.
"Consider a remote village in the Solomon Islands where local food security is directly linked to nearby marine areas. Protection of spawning and nursery areas can provide for more sustainable catches. Or think about coastal areas vulnerable to destructive storms. Marine protected areas that protect habitat like coral reefs and mangroves make a positive contribution to coastal protection," says Tanzer.
The Great Barrier Reef is largely protected. But the moves to expand Abbot Point suggest even this protection is open to interpretation. "Too often we are quick to declare protected areas and slow when it comes to their ongoing management," says Tanzer. "Unfortunately many of these areas are not being properly implemented and so are not contributing to their potential."
Sign on to show you want better protection for the reef and a future where people live in harmony with nature at wwf.org.nz/take_action/reef.cfm.